The War Nerd: China, Vietnam, and Naval Nerf Wars

By Gary Brecher , written on May 21, 2014

From The War Desk

A classic nationalist frenzy is in progress in Southeast Asia. Chinese-owned factories are burning in Vietnam, and Chinese and Vietnamese warships are playing chicken with each other near island chains nobody ever wanted to inhabit.

China and Vietnam both claim the Paracel and Spratly island groups, two obscure, generally worthless archipelagos in the South China Sea. Both countries are also in the perfect mood for some rage nationalism, with millions of city dwellers who never even heard of those obscure atolls suddenly furious at foreign interlopers for setting foot on them.

It’s one of the miracles of nationalism, the way millions—or in this case, hundreds of millions—of people can be worked up into a war frenzy over places they couldn’t find on a map. There’s a long tradition of this sort of madness among up’n’coming naval powers—and both China and Vietnam have big, powerful navies, both of which are accusing each other of “ramming” their ships as they play this giant game of parking-lot chicken near the island chains.

It’s as if 21st century naval vessels had no better way of attacking an enemy ship than by whipping the galley slaves up to ramming speed, Ben-Hur style. This is the lowest possible setting you can get for offensive military action, one step up from making faces or spraying a hostile ship with a water cannon—which Chinese ships have also done, spraying Vietnamese ships near the Paracel Islands.

And it’s not as if China has no better ways of destroying enemy ships. With more than 200 nuclear warheads, China could wipe out the entire country of Vietnam, never mind its navy, using land-based ICBMs. If the Chinese navy wanted to show its latest capabilities, it could use the new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile to obliterate any Vietnamese naval force in the South China Sea without ever showing the flag above water.

And yet the Chinese Navy, this massive, powerful force, is playing bumper-car ramming games and having squirt-gun water fights instead of using its real power.

This is a feature of 21st century war most war gamers are very reluctant to face. They’re more comfortable with the Stalingrad model: all-out, total war, use every shell you’ve got. That model is actually very rare, especially in East Asian war. What we’re seeing in the South China Sea is war dialed down so low it barely registers at all—stylized war, pantomime war.

And the US is actually very lucky that naval war in the 21st century has been dialed down to ramming speed, because if we ever encountered the all-out naval war Stalingrad gamers dream about, America’s aircraft carriers—a mid-twentieth-century weapon and twenty-first-century death-trap—would vanish in a radioactive mist, thanks to another weapon China has but isn’t using, the Dong Feng 21--a nuclear-armed ballistic missile specifically designed to erase the US carrier fleet.

Naval war has a long tradition of this. “Showing the flag” meant sending a warship or two into disputed waters so that the rival power could literally see your flag waving from the topmast. Shows of force like that are a little easier to modulate than armies; if the neighboring country sees your army massed on its border, it may tend to panic, but naval vessels can make the point without triggering what you might call an overreaction.

Of course naval visits can also be used to provoke an overreaction, or fake one, if that’s what you want. Remember the Maine? A century ago, the Hearst papers—their slogan being “We were Fox News before there was Fox News”—were demanding that every good American “Remember the Maine!” after a US warship by that name blew up in Havana harbor, where it had been sent to annoy the Spanish, who were hanging on to their Cuban colony by their last few teeth.

No one knows why the Maine exploded in Havana harbor, but it could easily have been the kind of accident you get when rum-soaked gun crews are handling thousand-pound shells in tropical heat. Or it could have been a Spanish mine, exactly as Hearst’s newspapers claimed when they all screeched in unison, “Remember the Maine/To Hell with Spain!” See, they added the rhyme there, “Maine/Spain.” Trumped-up war cries are always better when they rhyme, in my humble opinion. “To Hell with ‘free verse,’/It’s way way worse.”

In fact I’d bet that many of the slogans being chanted against China in Vietnam’s cities now have a good strong rhyme-scheme. (If any Vietnamese-speaking readers happen to know, drop me a line.) A catchy slogan is as important to these naval bluff-wars as a good rage-inducing pretext.

Although some of the pretexts that have been used to start naval wars over the centuries are so ridiculous it’s hard to believe they worked at all. But that’s because we’re not—well, most of us—in the middle of a jingoist frenzy. Once you’re in the mood, wearing those war goggles, any pretext looks sexy enough to start firing.

The all-time most ridiculous pretext ever successfully used to start a naval war wasn’t even a worthless island. It was a miserable chunk of ear. Back in 1739, Britain worked itself into a frenzy over a piece of ear that had been lopped off a merchant seaman named Robert Jenkins by Spanish coast guards who caught his ship inside what they considered their territory.

Jenkins lost the ear in 1731, and nobody much cared. That’s another feature you’ll find in all these nationalist frenzies: Nobody gives a damn about the pretext except during the frenzy. Applying that rule to the current dispute between China and Vietnam, you can bet that in ten or 20 years, the average nationalist TV consumer in Hanoi or Beijing will forget the existence of the Spratly Islands, or the Paracels—until the next round of jingoist propaganda makes them into big news for a week or two.

Jenkins lost the ear when he was boarded in the West Indies by Spanish coast guards. heading back to England, probably after delivering a cargo of slaves. That’s another feature you’ll see in all these silly-seeming naval games: There’s always a deeper, more sleazy, money-based reason behind them. Selling slaves to Spanish colonies in Central and South America was Britain’s most profitable business, governed by a rule the Spanish called “Asiento”—and any attempt to interrupt it, like boarding British vessels in the slave-selling zone, was enough to send the shareholders into a panic.

The current crisis has exactly the same sort of underlying—literally underlying—issue. Back then, slaves were “black gold”; now we use that term to mean oil, petrochemicals. And under all the lying about these islands, there’s a lot of oil at stake, waiting under the wide, shallow continental shelf of the South China Sea.

But there has to be a pretext, something to stir up the crowds who have no stake in the real money. To see how that works, let’s go back to the pure comedy gold of the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Jenkins lost the ear in 1731, right? So he lugs the stinking thing around in a jar of alcohol for eight long years and can’t get anybody to pay any attention. Why should they? Sailors were the lowest of the low; the usual method of recruiting them was to invite some drunken loser to have a drink in the alley, hit him over the head, and when he woke up to the ocean breezes and cursing officers, inform him that he was now a sailor, with all the rights (none) and duties (nonstop, dangerous, miserable) pertaining thereto.

But Jenkins was a persistent man—persistent enough to keep that chunk of ear in alcohol for almost a decade. He may have drunk the pickling agent from time to time—he’d have been a very unusual 18th century seaman if he didn’t—but he always renewed it, so that by the time the real movers and shakers were worried enough about Spanish crackdowns on the slave trade to need a war pretext, Jenkins had one ready and waiting and only slightly decomposed.

In 1739, eight years after he lost the precious lobe, Jenkins had the honor of presenting it to the House of Commons, which was annoyed enough with Spain to pretend to care, for a few weeks, about poor Jenkins.

The House of Commons, which didn’t get around to banning the use of the “Cat”—Cat o’Nine Tails—in the Royal Navy until 1879, pretended to care about Jenkins’s stinking earlobe for a few minutes in 1739, long enough to authorize letters of Marque for every aspiring pirate with an old hulk and an eye on all that Spanish bullion crossing the Atlantic. The point was made; Spain was served notice that any attempt to mess with Britain’s slave trade to Spanish colonies would provoke fake outrage and real privateering.

It’s this mixture of fake and real that makes war frenzies like the one going on in Asia now so hard to deal with. The jingoist crowds burning Chinese factories in Vietnam probably couldn’t find the Spratly or Paracel Islands on a map, and won’t even remember their names once this spasm of patriotic fever has passed. But the issues that the real bosses are using to stir up the rubes are very real.

Vietnam and China have too much in common to like each other very much. China is the dominant power in East Asia, after a humiliating era in which it had to bow to foreign domination, and it damn well wants its neighbors to acknowledge its return to power and show some respect—maybe tremble and grovel a little. Vietnam has the same role in the smaller Southeast Asian sphere—the regional bully, the conqueror of Cambodia, Overlord of Laos, the country that defeated the French, Americans, and (according to Vietnamese patriots) even the Chinese.

Two ambitious, proud, resurgent nationalisms sharing a border means there will be some noise now and then. In fact, the only pause in non-stop border provocations between China and Vietnam came when they were allies (at least officially) against American Imperialism, when they had to pretend that they were motivated by pure socialist goals.

The Cold War was a lot like that jar of alcohol where Jenkins kept his ear: It preserved a lot of old bloodlust, kept it from exploding in the usual smelly, unpleasant chemical reactions. “Yugoslavia” is the classic example: While the Cold War lasted, there was something nobody in the Balkans had ever experienced: “Peace.” As soon as the Soviet Union fell, the old family feuds started fizzing.

Both China and Vietnam are aggressive, nationalist countries on a mission to reassert their claims to dominance. China is on a long-term mission to reclaim its lost territories and erase the shame of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when it dissolved into little warlord states under pressure from Western commercial empires. Chinese troops have been busy settling old scores ever since Mao retook Beijing in 1949. The People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet (1950), then sent a million veterans into Korea (1952), smashed the Indian Army on two fronts a thousand kilometers apart (1962), and even attacked Soviet forces along the Ussuri River (1969).

That battle between two socialist countries showed how little socialist solidarity really meant when it came up against older, stronger territorial grudges. And there were grudges just as fierce on China’s southern border with Vietnam. China has been expanding for thousands of years; it’s a dynamic, aggressive culture, which makes for uneasy neighbors. The Vietnamese have a saying, “Vietnam is too far from Heaven and too close to China,” which pretty much echoes the old line Mexicans use: “Pobre Mexico, tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de Estados Unidos.”

But the wars between China and Vietnam haven’t been as one-sided as America’s with Mexico. Vietnam may be smaller than China, but it still exists, unlike dozens of other countries that once bordered China and have now been absorbed by it. Vietnam has lasted through occupations by invaders much scarier than the French or Americans—like the Mongols, who tried to take Vietnam three times in the 13th century and were defeated and bled dry during a long, shameful retreat northward.

You’d think someone in DC circa 1964 would have mentioned that, them being the best and brightest and all that, “Uh Mr President? The Mongols tried taking Vietnam and it didn’t go too well.”

The Vietnamese, like the Tibetans, the Mongols, and many other countries bordering on China, see China as the Borg—an insatiable power that can’t stop absorbing every culture it touches, like an amoeba. Which is, funnily enough, the way other Southeast Asian countries see Vietnam. So, we have two proud, expanding countries unlucky enough to share a border. You expect non-stop trouble, and that’s what happened—with one notable exception, that strange historical anomaly called “The Cold War.”

All through the Cold War, Vietnam and China had to pretend to be buddies under the benevolent, hairy gaze of Marx. And if they were tempted to sucker-punch each other, Marx or no Marx, there was a bigger reason to present a united front: The US, with its imbecilic invasion of Vietnam to remind them that the colonial era wasn’t quite over and it was too soon to turn your weapons on fellow Asians.

As long as the US was in their face, wasting huge sums trying to prop up a doomed and useless “South Vietnam,” China and Vietnam had no choice but to toast each other at those long, dull socialist banquets every now and then. But there wasn’t a lot of love lost on either side. The Vietnamese felt like the world’s bantamweight champion would if a Sumo wrestler was leaning a little too heavily on him, and the Chinese were outraged that Vietnam, this Mini-me version of China, was not only hogging the anti-Imperialist glory but cozying up to their real hate-object, the Soviet Union.

Once the last Americans fled from Saigon in 1975, all that pressure—the horrible Sunday feeling of pretending to be a happy family--was off, and it was back to the good old sibling-smashing. And the transformation from socialist comrades to bitter regional rivals took a mere four years.

In February 1979, 200,000 Chinese troops smashed over the border into North Vietnam. But this was controlled mayhem, a specialty of East Asian armies, old hands at modulation. The point was never to destroy Vietnam, occupy it, or even impose “regime change.” This was a gesture, “politics by other means.”

The Vietnamese, who had the same skill in military modulation, responded by leaving a force of 70,000 defenders near the border—a suicide force, essentially, a gesture of their own, saying, “We’re not in favor of you invading us but we’re not going to make any foolish last stands up here in the hills.”

The Chinese broke that line, as both sides knew they would, drove about 15 miles into Northern Vietnam, and waited, hoping the Vietnamese People’s Army (VPA) would move up, reinforce and get enveloped by the 400,000 Chinese reserves waiting over the border.

But this was a family feud, and if you’ve ever survived a Thanksgiving dinner with your most hated uncles and aunts, you’ll recall that in family feuds, everybody knows each others’ moves. So the Vietnamese, with the same slow, ferocious discipline they’d shown over the decades, refused to reinforce the border areas and massed their troops around Hanoi.

The Chinese had no intention of attacking Hanoi, with all the street-fighting, international complications, and possible Soviet intervention that might set off. So they settled for smashing up or carting off everything of any value in the strip of border territory they’d occupied.

And the VPA watched them, stayed within its lines, and did nothing as the Chinese burned every building and even shot the pigs and cattle in the Northern provinces. Exactly one month after they crossed the border, the Chinese announced victory and withdrew.

It was a puzzling war if you were from the all-out/Stalingrad school of warfare, but completely in line with East Asian tradition and even with Clausewitz’s emphasis on war as a psychological exercise, a set of gestures, not just a lot of kaboom-ery. Stalingrad is what happens when you have friggin’ nutcases running your war for you. The 1979 Sino-Vietnamese is what happens when you have a family problem between two factions that think long-term and have superb political discipline.

My favorite military encounter between Chinese and Vietnamese forces happened even before the two countries re-opened their old hatred. Way back in 1974, when Vietnam was still officially divided into North and South, there was a glorious battle—honestly, a genuinely glorious one—between Vietnamese and Chinese forces, right in the Paracel Islands that the two countries are screaming at each other about now.

It had everything, this battle: amphibious landings in the face of machine-gun fire, crippled vessels limping away in plumes of dense black smoke, and the ultimate military miracle—a South Vietnamese commander going down with his ship.

It was, without question, the greatest naval battle of 1974. Of course “Great Naval Battles of 1974” is not exactly a crowded field. The only other major seaborne action that year was the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, a pretty brutal deal—they named it “Operation Attila” and acted accordingly, with plenty of rape and pillaging.

But there was no real naval combat in Cyprus, since the Greek Junta was only good at violence toward its own people and wimped out totally against the Turkish force that landed in Cyprus. The 1974 battle for the Paracel Islands was much more fun for military buffs. For starters, there were no civilians to get hurt, because nobody lived on the Paracels, a group of coral atolls that barely poke up above high tide, about equidistant from China’s Hainan Island to the North and Da Nang on the Vietnamese coast.

“Equidistant” is bad news for an island chain, when the two countries it’s equidistant from both have navies. The local coral reefs are in for a pounding when two navies start drawing those fatal lines across the blue part of the map, because Country A’s line is going to overlap Country B’s, and that’s the kind of Venn Diagram that gets people killed and real estate torn up.

One little wrinkle, though: The “Vietnam” that fought China in this 1974 battle wasn’t the strong, united Vietnam you see today. This was a dying, senile farce of a country officially called “The Republic of Vietnam” but better known as “South Vietnam.” The last US troops left in 1973, and spare parts for all that expensive ARVN hardware were now embargo’d by the peaceniks in Congress. South Vietnam, had less than two years to live; it became extinct on April 30, 1975 when tanks belonging to the other Vietnam, “The Democratic Republic of Vietnam,” better known as “North Vietnam,” entered Saigon—better, or at least more recently, known as “Ho Chi Minh City.”

South Vietnam’s armed forces were a standing joke, hated even—or rather “especially”—by their American allies. The South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) was famous for desertion, corruption, and cowardice. The South Vietnamese Navy (VNN) was one of the world’s biggest, on paper, and definitely one of the world’s most expensive—but it was so insignificant it didn’t even develop that sort of reputation.

This was a land war, fought mostly in the Central Highlands and the Mekong Delta, with occasional urban warfare (both irregular and, during the Tet Offensive, conventional).

American “advisors” were always asking, “Why don’t our Vietnamese [ARVN] fight like their Vietnamese [NVA]?” They were about to find out that, when ARVN forces were fighting for what they saw as a valid cause, like expelling Chinese invaders, they DID fight just as well as NVA troops.

South Vietnam was in such a sorry state in its last couple of years that it didn’t even know Chinese troops had occupied some of the Paracels, even though other bits of sand in this mess of tiny islands were occupied by token Vietnamese squads. After hearing rumors about Chinese ships and troops digging in on the islands, a few officers of the VNN, with an American “advisor” along, steamed out in January 1974 to see who was out on these little atolls off Da Nang.

They found a few Chinese troops in residence on one small island, and several Chinese ships anchored near another. The VNN vessel called for the Chinese to leave the Paracels. The Chinese messaged back, “No, you leave.” Not exactly big-time military drama, so far, but it picked up when the VNN command got word that the Chinese had occupied the archipelago.

The VNN sent more ships, and on January 19, ARVN soldiers actually hit the beach of one small atoll under fire, a phenomenon that would have amazed most US advisors who tried to get them to engage the North Vietnamese “enemy.” The Chinese troops fired back, and several ARVN were killed, D-Day style.

They went back to their ships and nothing happened for a few hours as Chinese and VNN ships faced off. Then the VNN ships opened fire—point blank, cannon range, old-school broadside-to-broadside naval war. The Chinese returned fire, and eventually won by using an old Napoleonic-era move, maneuvering into position where their cannon could hit the VNN ships without being fired on in return.

One VNN ship, the Nhat Tao, couldn’t move at all due to a disabled engine. By 1974, corruption and a US embargo on spare parts left most of South Vietnam’s expensive weaponry out of order, so that wasn’t a surprise. But what happened as the Nhat Tao started to sink was a huge surprise.

The vessel’s commander, Nhuy Van Tha, did not desert in a moment of peril; did not try to steal whatever he could and wade ashore; did not use his men as human shields. Did not, in fact, do any of the sleazy stuff for which ARVN and VNN officers were notorious. He ordered his crew to evacuate and stayed aboard, going down with the ship, just like in a movie. That was an extraordinary thing for any officer of the South Vietnamese military forces to do.

Nhuy Van Tha is one of the few South Vietnamese officers—maybe the only one—who is a hero in Vietnam today. You can see his ridiculously young face on the placards waved by demonstrators in Hanoi 40 years later (May 18, 2014) protesting against Chinese incursions in the Paracels.

That photo of a woman in Hanoi, 2014, holding up the heroic image of a South Vietnamese officer sums up what’s remarkable about this forgotten 1974 battle. The casualties were trivial in military terms—about 50 dead on the Vietnamese side, probably fewer on the Chinese. The result was a simple victory, if you’re thinking in simple military terms; China occupied the whole island chain, and has even built a little city, Sansa, and renamed the whole island group “Sansha Prefecture.”

But the issue is far from settled, and the most important result back in 1974 is one that one-dimensional military buffs wouldn’t consider worth noticing at all: North Vietnam, the bitter enemy of everything South Vietnam and its American-sucking Army, ARVN, did not congratulate its fellow socialist power and ostensible ally, the People’s Republic of China, on driving the Imperialist lackeys from the Paracels.

In fact, North Vietnam was so outraged at this latest Chinese land grab that it sent a very uncharacteristically peaceable, neutral message on the lines that it was a shame neither party had found “a peaceful solution.”

Which, roughly translated, meant, “Just wait ‘til we’re done wiping out these pretenders in the South, you Chinese island-grabbers, and we can quit playing socialist footsie with you, and then—let the games begin!” Or rather, “begin again,” because the truth is the war between two countries as eager and ambitious as China and Vietnam never really ended, and never really will in the lifetime of anyone reading this.